Monica Haller, Clare Beer and Zainab Jawhar. Zainab Jawhar. The Veterans Book Project, 2011. 92 pp. Free download; Paperback £14.29. [LINK]
ON AUGUST 5, 2004, U.S. troops and members of the Mahdi army -- fighters loyal to the fiery Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr -- engaged in street battles in the Iraqi city of Najaf. For the entire day, local residents, like 24 year-old Zainab Jawhar and her family, hunkered down behind shuttered windows in the sweltering heat, enduring frequent power outages as well as an ever-present fear of the violence just outside their door.
By 11 pm, Jawhar was exhausted and retired to her second floor bedroom. Her life would never be the same again. Sometime after she drifted off to sleep, a U.S. artillery shell crashed through her roof and landed squarely on her legs. Had it been a live round, Monica Haller writes, “this would be a different story. There would be nothing left to speak of.” But the shell had been a dud, and Jawhar survived.
For several years now Haller, an artist with a background in Peace and Conflict Studies and currently a Guggenheim Fellow, has been assembling one of the most unique and important archives of the Iraq War. Her first effort was “Riley and his story. Me and my outrage. You and us”, a 470 page collection of photos and text offering a look through the eyes of a veteran who served at Abu Ghraib Prison, perhaps the most notorious locale of the Iraq War. Haller has been producing hybrid forms of art and historical documentation that provide perspectives, insights and understandings of the war that are new even to those who think they’ve seen, read and know it all. In book after book, Haller’s veterans sort out messy memories by arranging photos and text to tell their highly personal, idiosyncratic and exceptionally thought provoking stories of the war. Even at the height of its coverage, this was stuff we never read in newspaper accounts or saw on the nightly news, and it has remained absent from conventional memoirs written since.
Jawhar’s story, simply titled “Zainab Jawhar” and available for download for free at Lulu.com (or professionally printed for US$22.90), is the first of what one hopes will be many projects involving Iraqi civilians. It takes us from the moment Jawhar’s legs were severed in 2004, until late last year when she arrived in the United States for treatment through a charitable organization. Pictures of her damaged home, maimed limbs, and struggles with rehabilitation, and the exceptionally poignant prose of Jawhar and Haller (with assistance from writer Clare Beer), convey a tiny sense of just what it is to be a civilian trapped in the path of war. To have a foreign army invade your country, gravely wound you and leave you crippled. To have a foreign military commander promise to make things right and then renege on his pledge. To dream that a country which can pilot planes and fire missiles from them by remote commands sent from across the planet, can also produce new legs for the grievously injured -- only to find that it is far better at killing and maiming than it is at healing.
“Zainab Jawhar” ends hopefully, if ambiguously, but her story is downright devastating. Depressed, homebound and feeling as if she was nothing but a burden to an already struggling family, Jawhar’s life as an independent and productive member of her society appeared to be all but over. Only early last year did she regain some semblance of hope for a better future. “I wanted to be whole again,” Jawhar writes near the end of her book. “It took six years for me. Some people sell everything to get treatment. I was just lucky to get noticed…”
Whether Jawhar is ever made something close to “whole again” remains to be seen, but her story stands in for many who weren’t so lucky: the maimed who never made it to America for treatment; the displaced who still haven’t been able to return home; the dead who lie in mass graves; their relatives who still hope against hope for a return that will never happen. Through their poignant art and history, Jawhar and Haller offer a truer vision of the war than most have ever seen, despite all the books, documentaries, movies, photographs and articles that have emerged from the conflict in Iraq. The two leave it to readers to do the very least that can be asked of them: to take a long, hard look and contemplate just how many other Zainab Jawhars are still waiting to be made whole again as the Iraq War slips further and further from public consciousness.
Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian, essayist, and the associate editor of the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com. Currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, he is at work on Kill Anything That Moves, a history of U.S. war crimes and Vietnamese civilian suffering during the American War in Southeast Asia.